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San Francisco mayor wants to give cops a long leash. Here’s what you’ll be voting on

San Francisco Mayor London Breed attends a police officer of the month ceremony at City Hall on July 26. | Source: Jeremy Chen/The Standard

San Francisco Mayor London Breed has placed a public safety measure on the March 2024 ballot that she says will allow police officers to engage criminals in vehicle pursuits, get rid of unnecessary paperwork that chains cops to their desks, and give the department new surveillance tools.

In announcing her measure on Oct. 17, the mayor said she needed to go directly to voters because the Police Commission, which sets rules for the San Francisco Police Department, had “gone way too far” in passing policies that make it harder for officers to do their jobs. To demonstrate her point, the mayor made her announcement at Alamo Square, the scene of a recent viral video that appeared to show a police vehicle idling as an auto burglary suspect sped off.

But critics of the mayor’s plan say there is more going on than meets the eye. For one, police brass and the commission agreed upon rules around car chases back in 2013. And it’s no secret that Breed is facing a tough reelection battle next November. With public safety identified as a top concern for many voters, a ballot measure victory in the spring could be seen as a way to insulate the mayor from criticism.

The Standard dug into the details of Breed’s ballot measure to learn what exactly it would accomplish.

Officers from Tenderloin Station attend an awards ceremony at San Francisco City Hall on July 26. | Source: Jeremy Chen/The Standard

New Surveillance Technologies

While Breed has mostly directed her ire over crime toward the Police Commission, her proposal would significantly weaken a 2019 law passed by the Board of Supervisors that was designed to protect privacy and First Amendment rights.

Breed wants to carve out exceptions for police in the law, which prohibits city agencies from acquiring new surveillance technologies without supervisors first approving rules for how the technology will be used.

Specifically, the mayor’s measure would let police acquire any new surveillance technology without getting supervisors’ permission. The department would have to propose rules for using the technology within a year of acquiring it, and it could then keep using the technology unless the board says otherwise.

Brian Hofer, an Oakland privacy advocate who helped author the 2019 law, said the proposed change would “destroy the framework” of the ordinance. San Francisco banned the use of facial recognition technology with the law, but Hofer said the police would be allowed to use it under Breed’s proposal.

“You can do an amazing amount of data collection and harm in one year,” Hofer said. “You can collect millions and millions of faceprints in that time.”

Breed’s proposal would also carve out exceptions to the law to let police use drones and “public safety cameras” without board approval.

A surveillance camera is pointed toward pedestrians on Irving Street in the Inner Sunset on July 19, 2022. | Source: Camille Cohen/The Standard

Maggie Muir, a campaign consultant for Breed, said the mayor wants to change the law because its approval process for new technologies takes "far too long."

"The mayor announced at the end of 2021 that she wanted to give the police access to live camera footage," Muir said. "But because of the ... process, it took nearly a year for cameras to be legally allowed."

Breed’s proposal does include some guardrails.

The measure would allow the use of drones to help with vehicle pursuits and to “assist with active criminal investigations,” but the department would not be allowed to use the drones to infringe on First Amendment activities. Police would have to delete the footage within 30 days and limit access to the footage, unless police brass determine otherwise.

Police would also be able to install public-facing security cameras at locations that Police Chief Bill Scott chooses after holding community meetings. The footage could be viewed in real-time and after the fact, and police would have to annually report details about the use of cameras to the Board of Supervisors.

Using Force and Chasing Suspects

Currently, officers must document in writing when they point a firearm at someone, use force that is “reasonably likely to cause pain or injury” or when a person they use force on complains of physical pain or injury.

Breed’s proposal would only require officers to document in writing when they point a gun at someone, use force that is “likely to have caused physical injury” or when a person complains of physical injury after a use of force.

San Francisco police officers are seen using force on a homeless suspect on Market Street on Feb. 14, 2019. | Source: Courtesy Department of Police Accountability

All other uses of force, such as those that result in a complaint of pain, could be reported by officers using their body-worn camera.

The mayor is also seeking to minimize redundant reporting by multiple officers who use force in the same incident, such as when five officers point a gun at one person. Rather than five officers filing five reports, Breed wants only one officer to file a report, Muir said.

Another major issue Breed wants to change is when officers can engage a suspect in a vehicle pursuit. Officers are currently allowed to pursue a person who is suspected of a violent felony or when there is an “articulable reasonable belief” that a person poses an immediate public safety risk.

Officers are expected to weigh 17 factors—such as the speeds involved, traffic conditions and whether the suspect can be safely apprehended later—when deciding to pursue.

Breed’s proposal would lower the threshold for when officers are specifically allowed to chase a suspect to when they have reasonable suspicion that a “felony or violent misdemeanor” has occurred or is about to occur.

Muir said the mayor wants police to be able to chase people suspected of crimes unless there is an "immediate public safety risk in doing so.

"That would include retail theft and other property crimes," Muir said.

This would be the first time the rules around police chases were changed since 2013, when the Police Commission approved the current policy with input from the department, the police union and police watchdogs.

The policy change at that time focused on allowing officers to use their vehicles to block fleeing suspects endangering pedestrians, which came in response to a 2006 hit-and-run rampage that injured 19 people.

Before the change in 2013, the policy from 1997 did not clearly limit pursuits to those suspected of violent felonies. Breed’s policy changes would be written into law with the expectation that the Police Commission passes policies that do not conflict with her rules.

Reforming the Police Commission

Perhaps the most impactful new rules in the ballot measure are not for officers but for the Police Commission.

Under the measure, the commission would be required to host at least one public meeting at each district station before considering a policy change. The meetings would take place over 90 days and be hosted by a “neutral facilitator” chosen by the police chief and commission president.

Breed said the robust process is about transparency when it comes to changing police policies, which are known as department general orders.

“No more general orders today. General order tomorrow. Conflicting general orders,” Breed said.

Commission Vice President Max Carter-Oberstone, who was appointed by Breed but has publicly sparred with the mayor, said the measure would stall the commission from implementing new policies.

“In theory, we can do [the meetings], but I think it would take 18 months or two years just for any one policy,” Carter-Oberstone said.

Max Carter-Oberstone speaks at a press conference at City Hall about limiting certain traffic stops by officers. | Source: Camille Cohen/The Standard

The commission has been on a streak of updating old policies from the 1990s, including some that are largely uncontroversial. Breed’s proposal would give the chief discretion to waive the public input process.

Muir said the proposal was about making sure the commission engages with community members "not activists."

Lastly, the mayor’s proposal would make it official city policy that officers spend no more than 20% of their time on administrative tasks, with some exceptions. The commission and department would have to consider this when crafting new rules.

Michael Barba can be reached at mbarba@sfstandard.com